ONE of the delights of walking in the Yorkshire Dales is the varied amount of birdlife you will encounter - from the curlews, heron and dippers to the buzzards and if you’re particularly lucky, a peregrine at Malham Cove.

Now, with spring just around the corner, and with more people heading off into the outdoors, the RSPB is calling on people to keep an eye out on the area’s moorlands for hen harriers - one of England’s rarest birds of prey.

The nature conservation charity is keen to log sightings of the bird, which is in desperate straits, mainly because of illegal killing.

And it has relaunched its Hen Harrier Hotline in the hope of finding out where the birds might be breeding.

Armed with such information, the charity can send people to protect them, and hopefully secure their future.

At this time of year, the male hen harrier performs his courtship display known as ‘skydancing’, involving a spectacular series of swoops and somersaults. If he is fortunate enough to attract a female, he then proves his worth as a mate by passing her food offerings in mid-air.

Scientists estimate there is sufficient habitat in England to provide a home to around 300 pairs of breeding hen harriers. But last year there were only three successful nests in the whole country - and none in the Dales.

Hen harriers are in trouble largely because of ongoing illegal persecution. This is because they sometimes eat red grouse, which can make them unwelcome on moors managed for driven grouse shooting. This type of shooting requires huge numbers of red grouse and some game managers feel they need to illegally kill or disturb harriers to protect their business.

Amanda Miller, conservation manager for the RSPB in Northern England, said: “The past few breeding seasons have been disastrous for England’s hen harriers and sadly there appears to be no let up in the illegal killing and disturbance of these magnificent birds.

“If we can find out where these birds are breeding, we can deploy specialist staff to protect the nests, thereby giving them the best chance of success. We can also fit them with satellite tags enabling us to track their movements once they have fledged.”

Male hen harriers are an ash-grey colour with black wing tips and a wingspan of just less than a metre. They are sometimes known as ghostbirds because of the pale colour of their plumage.

Females are slightly larger, are owl-like in appearance, and have a mottled brown plumage, which camouflages them when they nest on the ground. They have horizontal stripes on their tails, giving them the nickname ringtail and a patch of white just above, on the rump.

The illegal persecution of bids of prey - of hen harriers, and also peregrines and buzzards - has been condemned by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

In June last year, following the issuing of a police caution to a junior gamekeeper filmed resetting three spring-loaded pole traps, authority chairman Peter Charlesworth said the authority would continue to do what it could to bring perpetrators to justice.

He said: “At a time when the Yorkshire Dales is receiving such widespread recognition as a wonderful place to visit, it’s incredibly disappointing that the criminal persecution of birds of prey continues to damage the reputation of the area. We know that birds of prey are a big attraction to the millions of visitors that come here, so these acts are causing economic damage as well as appalling harm to wildlife.

He further gave support to the plan to increase the hen harrier population then just published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in conjunction with Natural England, the RSPB, the Moorland Association and others, including National Park Authorities.

“We stand ready to assist those organisations, and work with our partners right along the Pennines to help deliver locally on the intent in that national plan,” he said at the time.

The Harrier Hotline number is 0845 4600121 (calls charged at local rate). Reports can also be e-mailed to Reports of sightings should include the date and location of sighting, with a six-figure grid reference where possible. A description of the bird’s behaviour would also be useful.

The Hotline feeds into RSPB’s Hen Harrier LIFE Project, a five year programme of hen harrier conservation in England and Scotland.

For more information, visit the website Twitter users can also follow @RSPB_Skydancer for the latest hen harrier news